Rarely is there truly a player in sports who can dominate in all facets of his or her game. Lionel Messi is a tremendous scorer in soccer, but he would never be played as a goalkeeper. NFL teams will occasionally experiment with two-way players, but in the modern era, this is confined to novelties such as Refrigerator Perry’s Super Bowl XX touchdown and J.J. Watt’s cameos as a tight end in goal line packages. Basketball comes somewhat close, with players such as LeBron James providing elite production on both offense and defense, but even then, LeBron James isn’t being expected to, say, play center. Magic Johnson did this one time and it became a key subplot in his career story.
If a player is considered a great two-way player in baseball, it usually refers to him succeeding both at offense and defense. And there are plenty of examples of this—Manny Machado stands out, as he ranks second only to Andrelton Simmons in Defensive Runs Saved since 2013 while also being one of the twenty most productive offensive players in baseball.
But when it comes to combining hitting and pitching, two elements of the sport segregated to such a degree that the designated hitter exists, there is Babe Ruth and then there is everybody else. Even Madison Bumgarner, much celebrated for his offensive prowess while also pitching excellently, has a career wRC+ of 46 in 514 plate appearances. For comparison, 2013 Pete Kozma, in 448 much-maligned plate appearances, had a wRC+ of 49. Bumgarner could only be considered good offensively by the very low standards to which MLB pitchers are held at the plate.
Shohei Otani, however, is not Madison Bumgarner. There isn’t a fair comparison for him. Otani, who plays for the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Pacific League, has started 18 games this season, where he has a 2.12 ERA in 123 innings, with 41 walks and 151 strikeouts. He has a league-low ERA and a league-high strikeout rate among starting pitchers. The statistics are impressive but the scouting reports are even more enticing—eight days ago, Otani broke his own record for fastest pitch in Japanese history, reaching a 101.9 miles-per-hour velocity matched this season in Major League Baseball only by Aroldis Chapman, Mauricio Cabrera, and Arquimedes Caminero.
Otani is an impressive pitching prospect based on this alone, but there have been impressive pitching prospects from Japan before. Masahiro Tanaka, in his three seasons prior to signing with the New York Yankees, had a sub-2 ERA with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. Yu Darvish, now with the Rangers, managed a sub-2 ERA in five consecutive seasons with the same Nippon Ham Fighters with which Shohei Otani is now making his name.
The difference between Otani and other superstar Japanese imports is that, in addition to being Japan’s best pitcher, he is also arguably Japan’s best hitter.
Otani currently sports a 1.008 OPS, leading the league, and in his first 359 plate appearances of the season, he belted 22 home runs. For good measure, Otani (who, and I cannot stress this enough, is also the best pitcher in the country) won the Japanese Home Run Derby.
And, while we’re at it, here’s video of Otani pitching, sitting down Alcides Escobar, Dexter Fowler, and Ben Zobrist in 2014.
Otani was 20. Otani turned 22 on July 5.
Otani, of course, did not accumulate his high number of plate appearances simply by batting while pitching; in fact, the Pacific League uses a DH, and Otani serves primarily on non-pitching days as his team’s designated hitter. Though it should be noted that he had seven outfield assists in only 62 games playing the outfield in his pre-DH days because of course he did.
I have never watched a meaningful game in which Shohei Otani pitched; my main ways of consuming his work have been reading second-hand anecdotes and viewing occasional clips. And yet he is probably my favorite baseball player in the world.
To a degree, I worry that Major League Baseball will ruin him, and that MLB would sap the fun out of Otani by forcing him to become a fairly standard player. And this could happen with any franchise, and thus when it comes to projecting Otani in the United States (or Canada), it’s probably not worth evaluating too seriously on the grounds of maximizing fun. And therefore, as a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I want the Cardinals to sign him.
To be clear, this probably won’t happen in this offseason. The Nippon Ham Fighters control Otani through 2019, and partially as the result of the posting fee maximum of $21 million, there is little incentive for them to sell on Otani right now, since $21 million would seemingly be a bargain for a player of his potential after the 2017 season, as well. But I am willing to wait. As should any fan of fun and excitement.
Wondering how Otani will translate may help set the price that he is worth, though in general, players signed from major international leagues tend to be relative bargains compared to MLB free agents. For instance, Yu Darvish cost the Texas Rangers a combined $112 million (in contract and the posting fee paid to his Japanese club) for a six-year contract. With a little over a year left on the contract, Darvish has been worth $106.6 million per FanGraphs, despite missing the entire 2015 season.
One particularly interesting consideration regarding Otani is how his future MLB team will handle him. Here is a rough, completely subjective ranking of semi-plausible utilizations of Shohei Otani, from most to least boring:
- AL team signs Otani; employs him exclusively as a pitcher, not wanting to subject him to potential injury
- Team signs Otani and converts him to full-time outfielder
- NL team signs Otani, employs him as a pitcher, and allows him to give reasonable effort on plate appearances, but otherwise rarely if ever pinch hits
- Team signs Otani as multipurpose substitute, allowing him to come in for relief appearances as well as pinch-hitting duty (this usage itself would be fascinating, but it is docked points because he would be used less, and also this borders on implausible given how much money Otani will command)
- NL team signs Otani to pitch and uses him frequently to pinch hit
- AL team signs Otani to pitch and uses him frequently as a DH on non-pitching days
- Team signs Otani to pitch and uses him frequently as an outfielder
I would guess that if the Cardinals were to sign Otani (this itself is unlikely; the usual suspects of the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers have already been linked to him), the most likely scenario would be #3 or #5. The nature of modern starting pitcher usage is so conservative (this is usually a good thing, as it allows pitchers to survive and also allows for dynamic relievers to have flourishing careers) that exposing a good pitcher to further risk is taboo.
The case of Shohei Otani, however, is unique in post-Babe Ruth baseball. He will almost certainly be, in some capacity, a terrific player, and coupled with what an unusual talent he is, every team should be going out of its way to associate itself with such a player. And this includes the Cardinals.